After eight years as a starting tackle, Fabini had been cut by two teams in a little more than a year and was considered washed up. Stephon Heyer had been bypassed in the NFL Draft after missing the 2005 season at Maryland following reconstructive knee surgery.
However, when the Washington Redskins made their 4-0 run in December to make the playoffs, they did it with Fabini and Heyer on the right side of their offensive line. Washington averaged 360 yards and 23.3 points in the four regular-season games that Heyer and Fabini, who had never played guard, started in place of injured regulars Jon Jansen and Randy Thomas.
But as the Redskins prepare to open their 2008 preseason Sunday, both players are expected to return to their reserve roles. Fabini will back up Thomas and Pete Kendall, while Heyer will start this weekend for Chris Samuels at left tackle before returning to the bench, perhaps as soon as next week. Samuels, who had offseason elbow surgery, still has not returned to full contact.
“You never want to be a backup, but as your career goes on, you’ve got to accept your role,” said Fabini, who will turn 34 next month. “Last year, I didn’t know if I was going to make the team. A lot of teams wrote me off and said I was done. I knew I wasn’t. Playing guard kind of just happened, and it worked out for me.”
Well enough that the Redskins were among the NFL’s better offenses with the 6-foot-7 Fabini taking a full-time role in the lineup in the Week 2 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Thomas tore his left triceps in the second quarter of that game and missed the rest of the season.
And after a brief hiccup in the loss to the Eagles - Fabini had two false start penalties on one drive - he had just one enforced penalty the rest of the season, a holding call in the loss at New England.
“Jason came light years. He really did,” said center Casey Rabach, a former starting guard who worked with Fabini after practices on the adjustment to playing inside. “By the end of the season, he was playing as well as anybody on the line.”
“Fabini was in some ugliness at times, but he got the job done,” offensive line coach Joe Bugel said. “I told him, ‘Just be a speedbump. Give yourself up but don’t give the quarterback up.’ He’s a slow starter, [but] he got better and better at the position.”
Today, Fabini takes all his snaps at guard and doesn’t want to return to tackle.
“When you’re used to reacting a certain way your whole career, it takes a while to get used to reacting differently,” said Fabini, who had to leave Tuesday morning’s practice with a stomach illness and couldn’t go in the afternoon session. “Things happen quicker inside. Now it’s like second nature. I love guard. I hope it extends my career. I was satisfied with how I played last year. The real rewarding part was down the stretch when everybody counted us out, and we had a little run that we needed. That was the most fun I had had in a long time.”
Heyer was equally satisfied with his NFL debut. The rookie took over for Jansen - who broke his fibula and dislocated his right ankle in a victory over the Dolphins in Week 1 - and the Redskins gained 400 yards of total offense. Todd Wade took over at right tackle in Week 2, but Heyer replaced him as the starter before the Dec. 6 win over Chicago, which started the Redskins’ four-game winning streak to end the season.
Heyer, who had returned to start all 13 of Maryland’s games as a senior in 2006 after missing the previous season, held his own against some of the NFL’s best pass rushers. His highlight came when he held future Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan without a sack as the Redskins whipped the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants at the Meadowlands in December.
“Stephon did a terrific job of listening to [Bugel] and the guys around him,” Jansen said.
“I couldn’t have foreseen the opportunities that I had,” Heyer said. “Being able to do what I did, I’m proud of myself and grateful to the organization for giving me the opportunity, not seeing me as a guy who couldn’t play because he wasn’t drafted. I took the opportunity and ran with it. I’m more confident in what I’m doing than I was last year. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better technique-wise, and I’m seeing things a lot faster.”